Despite Gary Oldman’s Oscar-baiting performance as Churchill, an underpowered script filled with wafer-thin characterisations undermines his good work in Darkest Hour
Darkest Hour (PG) **
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (18) ***
Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars (15) **
The most memorable scene in Joe Wright’s Ian McEwan adaptation Atonement was a five-minute unbroken shot of James McAvoy wandering along Dunkirk beach in a sort of fever dream, his character’s status as a small cog in a hitherto mishandled war reinforced by the way Wright’s drifting camera took in the surrounding carnivalesque chaos of an outflanked army beating a hasty retreat to the sea. That ability to slip from a micro to a macro view of the Second World War in a single shot is replicated in multiple different ways in Wright’s new film, Darkest Hour, which itself zooms out from the Dunkirk miracle to dramatise the back-room politicking surrounding Winston Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister in the weeks preceding it. As Wright’s vertiginous camera repeatedly takes us from the chaos of the ground to the entomological serenity of the air (and vice versa), he reinforces the global importance of the decisions being frantically debated by the British government in these crucial moments of May 1940. Sadly that visual bravado isn’t enough to combat a script – by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten – that seems intent on sounding everything out in the manner of The King’s Speech. Even though there’s a natural overlap between the two stories, Darkest Hour does itself no favours trying to evoke the reassuring nostalgia of that film by setting out to mythologise Churchill once again as Britain’s greatest Briton.
From the moment we’re introduced to Gary Oldman’s prosthetically enhanced Churchill – dining on a breakfast of brandy, cigars and fried eggs; a plinky-plonk score signposting his irascible, rebellious nature – it’s clear this isn’t going to be a particularly nuanced account of his life, even if Oldman does sneak the odd trace of Sid Vicious into his portrayal of him as the establishment’s most anti-establishment figure. Sticking two fingers up to the appeasers who want a negotiated peace, Winston is the only one in the government who understands that a protracted and devastating war will be necessary to protect British sovereignty from the threat of Hitler. Yet that’s also one of the sticking points of the film. Though it reminds us that thoughts of appeasement didn’t vanish the moment Neville Chamberlain resigned, the weight of history is surely great enough to render unnecessary any need to turn Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and foreign secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) into the moustache-twirling antagonists they’re presented as here. Their wafer-thin characterisation feels like a very laboured attempt to shoe-horn in a Brexit analogy, one that falls apart thanks to a rather fanciful scene late on in which Churchill makes the decision to go to war after consulting with the great-unwashed on a tube ride en route to parliament.
Naturally it all builds up to the famous “fight them on the beaches” speech signified by the title – yet the rousing patriotic uplift of that oft-invoked piece of oratory has already been poignantly interrogated and undercut by the final moments of Christopher Nolan’s superior Dunkirk. For all Wright’s talent and Oldman’s Oscar-baiting transformation, Darkest Hour is less than the sum of its parts, a high-school-level history primer destined to be forgotten the moment the awards season is over.
As a grief-hardened mother determined to keep the recent rape and murder of her daughter in the minds of the local police, Frances McDormand is so good in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it’s impossible not to be on her side – no matter how irrational she becomes, no matter how unpleasant her views . In a world of bigoted, violent and none-to-bright men, her character, Mildred Hayes, strides through the titular (fictional) town like an avenging angel, ready to tongue-lash priests, drill holes in vindictive dentists and kick bratty teens in the crotch whenever they get in her way. As written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), she feels like the embodiment of the current “Time’s Up” moment – a necessary expression of rage who’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more. She’s a force of nature, trapped by circumstance in small town purgatory and McDonagh fans the flames of this metaphor by puncturing the somewhat absurd plot with several arson attacks, one of which sets Sam Rockwell’s hate-filled, racist cop on a path to redemption that feels a little too easily earned.
That’s not to fault Rockwell’s performance (he’s almost too good), it’s merely to point out the limits of setting up the world of Ebbing as a symbolic playground rather than a town that’s properly rooted in reality or the history of the South: the film’s scabrous exploration of prejudice remains very much on the surface. Still, McDormand’s blazing performance is impossible to deny.
Running through his troubled childhood, his myriad addictions and the tragic death of his toddler son, the documentary Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars makes a case for the virtuoso rock guitarist’s credentials as an authentic bluesman, albeit one whose dedication to the purity of black American music was called into question when he drunkenly championed the racist policies of Enoch Powell in the mid-1970s. To
the film’s credit, it confronts Clapton on this, but oddly fails in the much easier task of celebrating his musicianship thanks to the bizarre absence of any decent archival performance footage of him in his Yardbirds/Cream/Derek & the Dominoes prime. ■